One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
With smiles on their faces, representatives of 16 ethnic armed groups in Burma and the government reached across two parallel tables on March 30 to shake hands in agreement of a draft nationwide cease-fire agreement. Top leaders of ethnic armed groups plan to sign the agreement in Naypyitaw in May and end the 65-year armed conflict in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Yet even as their superiors shook hands with their enemies, Burma Army pilots continued bombing Kachin Independence Army defenses in northern Burma as ground troops engaged in some of the heaviest fighting since 2011, according to David Eubank of aid group Free Burma Rangers. “It’s probably best summed up in the words of [Kachin] General Gun Maw: ‘We might sign because we do want peace, but that doesn’t mean the fighting is over at all because the attacks continue,’” Eubank said. “That’s kind of a strange cease-fire, it’s almost an oxymoron.”
The reality reveals a chasm much deeper and wider than those two parallel tables—a chasm cleft by decades of distrust, attacks, and impunity for the actions of Burmese soldiers. The deep-seated problems created by more than 50 years of oppressive military rule in the Southeast Asian country explain its uneasy transition into a civilian government. While the United States and the international community eased sanctions on the resource-rich country at the first signs of progress—such as releasing Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, easing censorship, and allowing the opposition party onto the ballot—many saw such acts as premature, leaving the United States without any leverage as Burma reverts to its former ways.
For the Kachin ethnic group, the horrific rape and murder of two young missionary teachers in January exemplifies the impunity of the Burma Army, which still holds a quarter of the seats in the parliament. Villagers in Shan State in northern Burma woke up Jan. 20 to find the bodies of Maran Lu Ra, 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, 21, lifeless, bloodied, and half-naked in the church compound where they lived. Boot prints marked the dirt outside their bamboo house, which villagers connected to the 30 Burma Army troops who had arrived at the village the day before.
Neighbors had heard screams and the sound of beating from the church compound the night before, but when they tried calling out to the girls and pushing their door open, they found the house quiet and the door unable to open. Assuming the girls were sleeping deeply, they went back home. The next morning, villagers found the missionaries dead with their heads severely beaten and knife wounds all over their bodies. Beside their heads was a large stick covered in their blood.
Ra and Tsin belonged to the Kachin Baptist Convention and had left their hometown of Waingmaw eight months earlier to teach and evangelize in rural villages. A majority of the Kachin people are Christians, as American Baptist missionaries reached out to the group in the 1800s.
The Kachin recognized the Burma Army’s handiwork in the attack against the missionaries—namely rape, torture, and murder. But the government claimed the culprits were uncertain and promised to investigate the matter. Now more than three months later, the government still hasn’t released autopsy reports or punished anyone in the military. Those who spoke with media or implicated the soldiers were beaten or threatened.
“We can’t prove [the Burma Army did it], but everybody knows,” said Ja Row, a Kachin refugee now living in India. “What can we do? Everything is out of our hands.”
In the past few months, fighting between the Burma Army and the independent armies of the ethnic groups has increased, beginning with the Burma Army’s shelling of 23 Kachin cadets last November.
In February, fighting intensified in the Kokang region after exiled Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng returned to the region to take back the city of Laukkai from Burma forces. In two weeks, the casualties rose to 130 with about 30,000 ethnically Chinese Kokang civilians fleeing across the border to China. The Burma government, which imposed a state of emergency on the area, feared Chinese interests were backing the fighting, a claim that both the Kokang rebels and the Chinese refute.
Tensions escalated March 13, when a bomb killed five Chinese farmers near the Burma border. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang blamed the Burma military, which refused to take responsibility and pointed the finger at Kokang rebels.
At the same time progress is crumbling on a number of other fronts. The government continues to oppress the Muslim Rohingya minority, an ethnic group that faces the ire of extremist Buddhists in the Rakhine area. In January 2014, the UN reported that police and local Rakhine massacred 49 Rohingyas, a claim President Thein Sein denies. Police continue arresting journalists who criticize the government, and in March, police beat and arrested students protesting an education bill.
The military remains a large presence in politics, as Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party is comprised of former military officials. When asked about the role the army would play in Burma’s future, Sein told BBC there was no timetable for the reduction of the military’s role, as “the military is the one who is assisting in the flourishing of democracy in our country.”
Still the United States continues its support of Sein. Last November, President Barack Obama sat by Sein on a gold-leaf sofa to declare the “democratization process in Myanmar is real” and that he was “optimistic” about its future, even as young protesters held up signs reading “Illusion” and “Reform is fake” earlier that day. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the country’s transformation “a high point of my time as secretary,” and U.S. businesses eagerly seize on the untapped customer base in the country of 60 million.
The United States will provide $18 million in aid to ensure that this year’s elections are inclusive and transparent. Burma is not allowing Suu Kyi to run for president because her children hold British passports, yet her party, National League for Democracy, is expected to win a number of seats.
Eubank of Free Burma Rangers has spent years traversing the conflict-ridden areas of Burma on foot, providing medical aid, reporting on attacks, and giving financial and spiritual help to those in need. Although he’s seen improvements in the past few years, including some government leaders who genuinely want to establish reform, he says he’s sickened by the Burma Army’s continued attacks even as it tells the international community of its reform.
Over the years he’s held dying men in his arms, comforted young children who have watched soldiers kill their parents, and escaped the bullets of Burma Army troops. Yet when local pastors informed him of the rape and murder of the two Kachin missionary teachers, Eubank said it affected him in an even deeper way.
Since 2011, 100,000 Kachin have been displaced, and many live in poor conditions and are constantly in fear of attacks.
“The murder of these two is some of the worst of all that is evil,” Eubank said. “Two young girls went out to serve the Lord, lived in a church compound where they are supposed to be safe, and they get tortured, raped, and murdered.”
Tens of thousands of Kachin lined the streets as Ra and Tsin’s coffins were brought back to the Kachin capital of Myitkyina. Mourners held candles, signs calling for justice, and framed photos of the smiling girls all along the two-day procession. Row, who writes for the Kachin News Group in New Delhi, said the frustration in the Kachin community arises from the common occurrence of such crimes: “There’s no punishment or strong action from higher authorities, so it keeps happening. It’s a systemic problem.”
Row hasn’t been able to return to her country since 2006 because of the fighting, but keeps in touch with friends in the region, many of whom are living in makeshift internal displaced persons (IDP) camps. Since 2011, 100,000 Kachin have been displaced, and Row said many live in poor conditions and are constantly in fear of attacks. The Burma Army burned and looted an IDP camp in 2013, causing the 2,000 displaced persons to flee yet again.
For Row, it was a discouragement to see the international community throwing off sanctions at the first sight of progress in Burma, and taking Sein’s word at face value. “It’s still going on, the human rights abuses—every day there is fighting,” Row said. “We don’t have power—power is only in the hands of the military.”